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Us and Dem

Given a seemingly invincible opponent, winning isn’t the only thing for Dems. Rather, the candidates are fighting a battle for their party’s soul.

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Mad About You: John Kerry celebrates.  

George Bush seems as unbeatable as any unbeatable incumbent has ever been.

While there are lots of people who would like to believe they can passionately will this not to be true, the main premise of this election is a deep fatalism about the inevitability of George Bush. Nothing short of cataclysm would appear to be able to dislodge him. Such a stoic sense of reality makes the primaries—the upset in Iowa last week, the attempt to regain footing in New Hampshire this week—seem something like fantasy baseball and the people out in Iowa and New Hampshire like quaint hobbyists (if not weird cultists).

The preposterous rise of Howard Dean was the initial reaction to the Bush lock—what do we have to lose? Let’s be bold—the backlash against Dean, the second. What have we done here? We’re not just going to be creamed, we’re going to be a laughingstock.

The Dean fantasy has been an extraordinary one. The Vermont doctor has been not so much the antiwar candidate as the anti-South candidate (the subtext of the Confederate-flag fracas was that the Dean team viewed the South as something of a Third World country). Dean represented a repudiation of the Republicans’ southern bias, and of the Democrats’ attempts to pander to that bias (i.e., Bill Clinton). He was a force of demographics (the demographic David of Vermont against the demographic Goliath of Texas) and sensibility. He was as far as you can get this side of the Mason-Dixon Line in the culture wars. And why not, if Bush has it in the bag anyway? If your most sensible and realistic sorts had given up on the race, then the much less sensible and realistic get a fanciful shot. Let’s change the paradigm! (Dean, the candidate of the Internet, has a lot in common with the Internet bubble.)

Pick the moment of the reversal. Mine is when Dr. Judith Steinberg showed up on the front page of the New York Times. You could hear the collective intake of breath. First there was the pure style issue: the untended hair, the thousand-year-old jeans, the stubborn sneakers. The picture said it: hard-core. You just couldn’t transpose her into another setting—and, indeed, during the last-minute panic when campaign officials (apparently on the orders of Tom Harkin’s wife) shanghaied her to Iowa, she looked not just unwilling but terrified. The lack of fluidity here seemed extreme. Comic. Problematic.

And then there was the not unreasonable inference that she was exercising the right of a liberal woman of her station, after 23 years of marriage, not to much like her husband at all. How else could you read the story of his two-year absence from home: running for president was his strategy for surviving his marriage; ignoring him while he did it was hers. The subsequent effort to portray her, in an interview with Diane Sawyer, as something of a rare political innocent, made her seem instead like a media invalid (on top of this being her first television interview, the Deans don’t have cable), as well as a too-fragile bird (certainly too fragile for the rough-and-tumble of popular culture), and added to the sense that the Dean candidacy lacked an acceptable level of socialization, that basic skill sets were missing here, that desperate Democrats had embraced this candidacy knowing almost nothing about this rather odd man.

And so the Kerry surge. It was almost a natural progression. Kerry, too, is a just-say-no-to-the-South candidate. He is a return to a pure order of Democratness. Wealth, liberalism, thick hair, and even military service. A controlled, patrician liberalism as opposed to Dean’s children’s-crusade populism (a classic too, but never, ever, a winning classic). You could send Kerry directly to the party pantheon: Adlai. Averell. Al Gore. And, not least of all, as he campaigned beside that slovenly barkeep, Teddy Kennedy, Kerry resembled, sort of, an unaged Jack Kennedy. From the beginning, Kerry positioned himself as this kind of fantasy Democrat. It is perhaps a measure of the extremism of the Dean fantasy that the Kerry fantasy suddenly seemed reasonable.

And then, progressing beyond Kerry, and back to a certain Realdemographik, there was the in some ways even more stunning catapulting of John Edwards into prime time. His thesis—that the Democrats needed, indeed the best they could hope for, was a reconstructed Southerner—was hard to get around. If you had any hope of swinging the swing states—even acknowledging a general lack of hope—Edwards was suddenly the duh candidate.


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